On the Trail With NZ Parliament’s Lone Defender of the Free Market
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On the Trail With NZ Parliament’s Lone Defender of the Free Market

If a politician talks and there’s no journalist there to record it, did the politician talk at all?

If you were at the Manukau District Court charged with a crime, its parking lot would be a confusing place. On one side is the big mud-coloured brick building of the court; on the other is Rainbows End, where rollercoasters speed along tracks like giant demented caterpillars and the whoops and screams of those on board carry over the hedge.

On a windless day, you would probably hear those same noises of joy from the courtyard outside the entrance, where people gather to smoke and chat between appearances. When I visited for an ACT Party policy announcement on youth justice, it was a different kind of day: a biting wind entirely mitigated the sunshine and set ropes clanking against flagpoles and clouds scurrying. ACT party staffers outnumbered the assorted media throng—myself and one other journalist, from Newstalk ZB—as we awaited the party's leader and sole MP David Seymour. When he arrived, walking up the path from the car park towards the lectern that had just been placed there by one of his staff, he was approached by a court security guard with heavily tattooed arms, who asked him to move over metre or so, off the court's property and onto the council's.


Seymour, 34, began by making light of the meagre media showing, and I couldn't help but imagine this scene if—entirely plausibly—the two journalists present hadn't made it. Would the show have gone on? Would Seymour continued to have talked into the voice-memo function of his press secretary's iPhone, as he addressed the circle of rocks that decorated the courtyard like a knee-high Stonehenge? If a politician talks and there's no journalist there to record it, did the politician talk at all?

People walked by, looking over their shoulders as they passed, and others—just visible beyond the reflective glass—peered down on the courtyard from the big windows on the second floor. Seymour, in a black blazer over a red-checked shirt, said it was time to end "the cry-me-a-river, poor-me approach to youth justice", announcing that ACT would fine parents $50 for every day a child missed school; for families dependent on a benefit, income management would be the punishment for ongoing truancy.

At one point the wind ripped the ACT hoarding—"Own Your Future"—from the lectern, and Seymour had to stand somewhat awkwardly, his hands holding the corners of the hoarding to that of the lectern as he finished his speech. "It is time," he told the two of us, and his staff, "for parents to take responsibility," in the fight against what he termed a "youth-crime epidemic".

Spend any time talking politics with Seymour and "responsibility" is a word you'll hear often. "What we're saying with this policy," he told me later, "is, hang on a second, if you can't even make sure your kids can't go to school and take advantage of free education—which is still, by world standards, one of the best you're going to get—then we're actually going to claw back some of that other benefit that we're giving you."


When I suggested that it would further penalise those already struggling, he counter-challenged, arguing that my question was grounded in the assumption that those at the lower end of the economic spectrum weren't able to take control of their lives. "This is our basic view: that people aren't useless; they can actually take responsibility."

David Seymour fuels up before another afternoon of door-knocking.

I followed Seymour to Mount Eden Village, where he was to spend the early evening going door-to-door among the businesses. We met at his regular pit stop of Burger Wisconsin, where he downed a burger and a chocolate milkshake.

I asked if he felt that this election, with Jacinda Ardern's ascension turning it into what Bill English has termed a "drag race"—almost presidential in character—between Labour and National, had starved his and other minor parties for political oxygen, if he felt he had had enough opportunity to air his party's ideas. He agreed it had been difficult, mentioning also the column inches spent on the fallout from Metiria Turei's admission of benefit fraud, and the revelation that Winston Peters had been overpaid his pension—a leak that Seymour was adamant had come from Peters himself. "It's been damned difficult to talk about the policies in my book," he said.

That book, also titled Own Your Future, of which he gifted me a copy, is built around a host of other David Seymourisms: deregulation, choice, freedom, entrepreneurship. His faith, naturally, lies in the vicissitudes of the free market: "Private enterprise has given us just about everything, and government has screwed up badly the things that it's touched," he told me. At times he seemed exhausted, or exasperated—at me or government intervention, I wasn't sure—placing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and furrowing his forehead.


He said housing was the biggest issue this election, blaming National for nine years of inaction, of chasing the easy votes that go with escalating property prices. It was, he said, the root cause of many of our other issues. Growing inequality was largely due to the rising cost of housing, while skyrocketing prices that locked younger house-buyers out of the market meant the kind of generational conflict we've become used to, with accusations of greed lobbed in one direction over the divide, and allegations of excessively extravagant breakfasts thrown straight back.

Ardern's entry into the race made explicit that duality—boomer versus borderline millennial—but Seymour said Ardern had already failed her age bracket and those below, and he was eager to claim the mantle. "Our generation [meaning his and mine] hasn't got a look in. The most basic test for someone [is] are you prepared to raise the age of superannuation [from 65]? If you're not prepared to do that, you're not serious. Are you prepared to say to baby-boomers, sorry, you've had enough, and you're going to live for bloody ever anyway. We're going to raise the age of superannuation."

Street selfie.

Seymour visibly bristled at any suggestion that ACT was the was the recipient of National largesse, that the larger party had stepped aside in Epsom, and let Seymour campaign run unopposed from the right. Instead he credited the voters with recognising that it was in their interest to give their electorate vote to him. Epsom contained, he said, "60,000 of the most educated, articulate" people to have ever graced the earth.


Sated after his burger and the milkshake he couldn't quite finish, he picked up a stack of brochures from his car, and hit Mount Eden Village. Seymour says he knocked on 13,000 doors during his successful 2014 campaign for Parliament, and it's obviously part of the job he enjoys, any of the annoyance I detected earlier evaporating on the blustery street.

He stopped into perhaps a dozen shops while I was with him: "It must be election time!" he'd say upon entering, before depositing a couple of ACT brochures and chatting briefly, asking about people's concerns and if there was anything he should know. He was welcomed warmly into Ray White Real Estate, a junior worker rushing out afterwards to get a photo and ask about the best way to stop a Labour-led government, and he chatted personably about mental health and public transport with two people, both wearing "I Voted" stickers on their aprons, behind the counter at a delicatessen. Afterwards, he said he'd be surprised if either had voted for his party—they hadn't; I asked—but he still spent longer chatting with them than anyone else I watched him talk to that day.

Success in this election, he said, would mean once again winning in Epsom, and perhaps adding a few more MPs to what he hoped was the next centre-right government. The latest One News Colmar Brunton Poll has ACT at one percent nationally, not enough to bring in any extra MPs, should he win Epsom. That at least, looks probable, with Bill English encouraging National supporters to give their electorate vote to Seymour. When I pushed the question of ACT benefitting from National going easy on them in Epsom, Seymour described his success in the electorate—revealingly, I thought—as an outgrowth of entrepreneurship, as opposed to a hand-out. "You're trying to imply that we are some sort of beneficiary; actually, we're entrepreneurs. We've invented a strategy that allows us to be in Parliament."

Another pillar of that strategy is obviously Seymour's engagement with his electorate. We shook hands and I left him and his press secretary on a Mount Eden corner, in the wind and the watery sunlight, as he prepared, much-diminished stack of flyers in hand, to enter the next hairdresser, or art gallery, or chemist.

READ MORE: Follow along with James on the campaign trail as he takes a look at the other side of political spectrum with the Green Party. Chlöe Swarbrick Fights For Her Party's Parliamentary Existence

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